Ministers must disclose job-offer chats to their perm sec, ethics chief tells MPs

But Laurie Magnus is coy about using his investigatory powers to probe misuse of statistics, even when UKSA sounds the alarm
Laurie Magnus appears before the Standards Committee yesterday

By Jim Dunton

20 Jul 2023

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s ethics chief has told MPs that any minister who is actively discussing job opportunities with potential future employers has an obligation to tell their departmental permanent secretary about those conversations.

Sir Laurie Magnus, who was appointed as the PM’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests in December, told members of parliament’s Standards Committee that in-office talks about future roles were clearly a potential conflict of interest.

His answer came following a question from MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, who currently chairs parliament’s Liaison Committee and previously chaired the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

It also comes at a time when the Labour Party has a 20-point opinion-poll lead on the Conservatives and a general election looms – likely focusing many ministers’ thoughts about their future propsects.

Jenkin asked Magnus what conversations he was aware of between ministers and perm secs about post-ministerial appointments, against the backdrop of “very glaring” examples of conflicts of interest that he declined to name.

Magnus said that, seven months into his current role, he had seen no evidence of ministerial conversations with perm secs about future job opportunities.

“But I would expect, as part of the declaration of interests, that if there was a minister who was contemplating taking on employment with a firm of accountants – say – or whatever it might be, that they would disclose that and be recused,” he said.

Magnus told MPs that ministers’ future jobs were only part of his remit to the extent that compliance with the rules for former ministers is set out by government watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is part of the ministerial code.

However he said that if ministers were having conversations about post-government job opportunities it was “poor form” and something they needed to report.

“There is a potential conflict,” he said. “The obligation should be on the minister to disclose it to their permanent secretary and say: look, you should be aware that I’m having a conversation with a potential employer.”

Magnus said the issue went back to the “fundamental foundation” of the ministerial code, “that it is down to ministers to identify their conflicts”.

 Jenkin said the obligation on ministers to report such conversations should be explicit, rather than “just hanging in the air as an implication”. He pointed to a 2017 PACAC report that proposed amendments to the civil service code that would have required officials to report job offers or other informal suggestions of rewards that could be seen to have a bearing on their role as a public servant.

Jenkin said a similar requirement for ministers would force conversations about job offers, clarifying the boundaries of “unacceptable” behaviour and deterring prospective employers from making offers.

Magnus said he believed the obligation for ministers to disclose conversations about future employment opportunities was “already implicit”, but he said he would come back to the committee on the issue.

Stats: a tough question

Elsewhere in Tuesday’s session Standards Committee chair Chris Bryant questioned Magnus about his powers and willingness to investigate ministers who breach ministerial code rules requiring accurate information to be provided to parliament – and errors to be corrected as soon as possible.

Earlier this year, fact-checking organisation Full Fact produced a damning annual report that described 2022 as a “damaging year” for standards in public debate and which listed cabinet ministers and two prime ministers among those who had failed to correct false or misleading claims.

Magnus said he could “in theory” investigate such breaches of the ministerial code.

He admitted that he had received “one or two” complaints calling on him to investigate accuracy issues, but “some other resolution” had happened.

Bryant asked if he would investigate if the UK Statistics Authority were to write to a minister to say: “You cannot keep on using these statistics. These are false, they are untruthful and they are inaccurate.”

Magnus said such a letter “might be” the kind of prima-facie evidence that would be required.

“I’m choosing my words carefully, and I hope you will recognise that,” he said.

Magnus added: “I don’t want to commit myself.”

Then-prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary at the time Priti Patel were both chastised by the UKSA for the misleading use of crime statistics last year.

Johnson had a considerable track record of run-ins with the UKSA during his time as foreign secretary and then prime minister.

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